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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
I read dozens of great new releases last year, but my reading took a surprising twist in 2017’s closing months. At Williamsburg Regional Library, we had success with “Jane-uary,” a month of films and programs connected to the legacy of Jane Austen. We decided to try another author and spent November and December having “A Dickens of a Time.”
As a student, I was dismissive of Dickens. Like most at that age, I didn’t need much excuse to criticize assigned reading. But I’ve learned that literary opinions don’t necessarily last a lifetime, and later Dickens encounters have been positive. I Heeped up Dickens novels and biographies and worked to Pecksniff, Gradgrind, and Winkle as many down my Gargery as I could.
Dickens has suffered a spotty personal reputation since biographer Claire Tomalin presented the details of his whopper of a midlife crisis and long-term affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. It just goes to show what happens if you hang around theaters with the likes of Wilkie Collins. Dickens married just as The Pickwick Papers transformed him, almost overnight, from minor journalist to major celebrity. His wife, Catherine, didn’t like public life, and the two became increasingly mismatched. When their final break came, Dickens behaved badly.
Still, as I studied the man, I found common ground. On an infinitely smaller scale, I relate to the challenges of writing for deadlines. We share a love of the stage; a tendency for insomnia; and a mostly useful, sometimes-problematic habit of overcommitting ourselves. One joy of reading major authors is that we often know these personal details and can use them to connect to their writing.
This time around, I found much to admire. Dickens remains genuinely funny, no mean feat almost 150 years after one has gone to the grave. He can go from comedy to heartbreak in a few sentences but without sacrificing believability. His passion for performing his stories makes his writing style great for listeners even now. Dickens’ audience sometimes wasn’t reading but paying a pittance to hear his novel read aloud. At our daylong “Dickens Read-a-Thon,” even his less read novels yielded passages that had me laughing aloud or rapt in suspense. And don’t underestimate his turn of phrase or those wonderful character names.
As I learned about serial publication, most of what I found jarring as a young reader was explained. To retain audiences across installments, serial writers used catchphrases, repeated descriptions, and coincidences to make surprising twists. The other common criticism is that Dickens’ characters are types, but Dickens was interested in society, not dissecting individuals. As E. M. Forster wrote “Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness than the severer critics admit.”
Dickens’ legacy overrides his human frailties. As the new movie The Man Who Invented Christmas demonstrates, his contributions brought the minor holiday of Christmas out of decline and into massive popularity. A Christmas Carol themes of generosity and family became the underpinning philosophy of Christmas lovers.
Many authors make the case for social justice, some crusading beyond their writing, but Dickens was committed. He was the first novelist to feature disadvantaged, lower-class characters as role models. He campaigned for child welfare, school reforms, hospitals, sanitation, prison and workhouse reform, better treatment for “fallen” women, and a slew of other causes, giving money and time, even as his own health came apart.
My Dickensian search uncovered the kind of personal connection we hope to make for readers in advisory and put Dickens’ novels forever in my spotlight. The good times of Dickens’ early childhood (before his father went to debtor’s prison and Charles to a bootblack factory) were spent in Kent. When he made his fortune, he bought Gad’s Hill, the large house he had admired as a child.
My ancestry, on both sides, hails from Kent. My mother’s fancy side immigrated to America long before Dickens, joyriding on the Mayflower and gigging as governors of Massachusetts. My father’s side, however, the kind of folks listed only as “labourer” in the census, were still in Kent during Dickens’ time. Before the internet, we couldn’t place them until we discovered that the “Bo-Peep” of family records was the local pub (which is still going strong), not the name of a town. While I read Dickens, my sister was climbing in the family tree and made a surprising discovery: a document that showed that my great grandfather died in a Kentish prison in the early 1870s. John Cooper Hollands was probably incarcerated for committing crimes of poverty, just as John Dickens was a generation earlier.
Dickens was a fanatical walker and frequently made the 30-mile jaunt into town. Putting Gad’s Hill and London into Google maps, I discovered that the Bo-Peep wasn’t far off that path. Since this discovery, I have been writing my own Dickensian novel in my head, imagining my ne’er-do-well great-grandfather drinking in the same pub, or my child grandfather, born in 1863, attending one of the great man’s farewell readings and finding inspiration for the solo journey he would make to America at age 14, forced by his father’s death to forge his family’s next chapter. While I play with these ideas, I’ll keep reading Dickens for inspiration.
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